Review: Louder Than Bombs (2015)

Director: Joachim Trier

*****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Louder Than Bombs is a ghost story. Throughout director Joachim Trier’s English-language debut, the presence of war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) is only ever felt from a distance. Three years after her death, she speaks from the afterlife in flashbacks, remembrances and voiceovers. Louder Than Bombs is a beautifully constructed collage of these elements; it’s a determinedly impressionistic work, using fragments from the people broken by Isabelle’s death to put together a mosaic of a woman they may never have fully known. This arrangement of memories plays out without recourse to big drama or hysterics; this is less a emotional display than an emotional dissection.

Like all ghosts, Isabelle is overseeing the completion of unfinished business. She left behind a lot more collateral damage than just the car she was driving when it ploughed head-on into a truck. Three men are still reeling from her passing. Her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) is struggling to forge a connection with their son Conrad (Devin Druid), whilst older son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) has just become a father for the first time. Their grief after Isabelle’s death, restrained as it is, means their lives feel fragmented, occurring in individual moments. Sometimes, in the middle of an action, they just leave to zone out of the moment. Failing that,  memories of their wife and mother intrude on the narrative. The film opens with Jonah holding his newborn child; the infant clutches its father’s finger in a poignant Malick-ian close-up. The moment only lasts so long, however, and Jonah leaves his wife’s (Megan Ketch) bedside in search of coffee as an excuse for an escape. It sounds harsh, but Louder Than Bombs is rarely less than truthful in its portrait of sublimated grief.

The themes and narratives of Louder Than Bombs are explored with such a level of detail and restraint that it feels like a film only Trier could have made. Even though this is his first English-language feature, Trier brings a confidence and professionalism to the film straight out of his previous works, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st. Teaming up once more with regular collaborators like cinematographer Jakob Ihre and composer OIa Fløttum does help, but even without them, or the decidedly European tones of Huppert and Byrne, the film benefits from an introspectiveness more closely associated with French or German cinema. There are few moments of explosive anger or revelation. Instead, truth comes home in the tenderness of the smallest familial moments. The precious memories that Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt weave in and out of the narrative say more about why these men grieve than any outburst. Conrad falls asleep on Isabelle’s shoulder on a car journey. Gene shares a laugh with her about a colleague’s smoking habits. Jonah recalls a visit she made to him at his college dorm. There is humanity both in these moments and in their insistent interjection. When we want to escape the present, we remember the best of the past. Trier and Vogt find a poetry in the script that sees moments and lines get repeated in completely separate contexts. Over the course of the film, all three leading men find their love lives being complicated by professionalism (Gene starts dating Conrad’s teacher Hannah, played by Amy Ryan), old passions (Jonah reconnects with an ex (Rachel Brosnahan) and social strata (Conrad’s crush on classmate Melanie (Ruby Jerins) goes unrequited out of shyness). Throughout these travails, echoes of dialogue and direction remind us that these men have similar approaches to the women in their lives. By nature, nurture and the gift of a layered screenplay, they are inescapably each other’s kin.

The narrative drive in Louder Than Bombs comes from a proposal by Isabelle’s colleague Richard (David Strathairn) to write a column about her for the New York Times ahead of a retrospective exhibition of her work. This forces Gene and Jonah into a quandary about whether or not to come clean to Conrad about her death. The film flits between the equal possibilities of Isabelle’s death being either an accident or suicide. It’s a question that derails what fragile momentum these men have maintained in the three years since, but all three actors sell the pain quite admirably. Eisenberg gives his most compellingly confident turn yet, maintaining a high-wire act between likeable and all-out jerk without nervous tics or bumbling limbs. Relative newcomer Druid boasts an impressive degree of necessary restraint to sell Conrad’s hidden turmoil, and Byrne’s burdened melancholia is a pleasant reminder of his top-notch work on In Treatment. Huppert helps Trier maintain a distance between Isabelle and everyone else with a turn of inscrutability and silent despair. She’s unknowable, almost to the point that she seems clichéd. Yet this is exactly Trier’s point; the image we get of Isabelle is always through a lens of grief and memory. We only ever see her husband and sons’ recollection; they knew so much about her, and yet it’s never the whole story. A shot of Huppert in close-up looking at the camera is given a violet tint, suggesting she’s behind a pane of glass. Her character’s choice of profession is not random; Louder Than Bombs is all about the images we capture of those closest to us, whether in photographs, memories or on film. We can see every freckle on Isabelle’s face, but she’s only a ghost. Our memories introduce a nebulous filter to obscure the full picture.

Decisions like that pane of glass contribute to a deliciously detailed film. Trier fills the film with camera moves, positions and framing devices of such potential that a second viewing will be required to unpack it all. Scenes will unfold twice over, but from different angles, in order to bring clarity to these fragmented moments. They unfold with style in isolation, but they gain new power in the bigger picture. Louder Than Bombs does a remarkable thing; it observes its characters with a focused and unobtrusive eye. Trier allows the characters to make their own decisions and mistakes, and to be their own judges. This in turn allows you, the grown-ups in the audience, to draw your own conclusions. Trier’s got too much respect for his characters and audience to talk down to them.

Review: Eye In The Sky (2015)

Director: Gavin Hood

****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Drone warfare sounds like a simple practice. Isolate your target, focus on it, and then attack. The benefit is one of distance; we can witness collateral damage without getting our hands dirty. Gavin Hood’s Eye In The Sky takes a similar approach in its examination of drone attacks; it’s effectively simple, but its focus on its target is unwavering. Last year, Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill tried (and failed) to grapple with the moral dilemmas facing those engaged in drone warfare. This time around, Gavin Hood’s film cuts out most superfluousness, and is more keen to raise questions than force trite answers on an audience it’s keen to make complicit.

The opening title card is followed by a quote from Aeschylus, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” Besides being a common misattribution, it’s disingenuous towards the characters in the film; despite the ripe geopolitical setting and narrative, this isn’t mired in lies and corruption. Quite the opposite; it’s about people doing their best to swallow horrible truths. One has to wonder how often it happens (if at all) that a drone team comes face-to-face with decisions like the ones encountered in Eye In The Sky. When drone pilots Watts (Aaron Paul) and Gershon (Phoebe Fox) are confronted with all too human a face in their line of fire, politics, public protection and basic human decency clash in an admirably-calibrated race against time.

The drone pilots are based in the Nevada desert, about to execute a joint U.S.-U.K. operation in far-flung Nairobi under the London-based command of Colonel Powell. Powell is played by Helen Mirren, easily justifying stepping into a role originally written for a man, and not for the first time either. She lends an authoritarian grace to any role, and Colonel Powell demands it. As soon as you see her onscreen in her uniform, you buy the Colonel’s no-nonsense tack completely. The mere presence of a given actor does so much for a character, and Eye In The Sky is full of actors who sell their roles with little more than a look or a syllable. A notable example here is Alan Rickman, to whose memory the film is dedicated. As government liaison Lt. Gen. Benson, Rickman bears his uniform with the sighful disdain that became one of his trademarks. The sighs come readily, as Benson joins the defence secretary (Jeremy Northam), the Attorney General (Richard McCabe) and a legal counsel (Monica Dolan) to oversee the Nairobi raid. A meeting of high level al-Shabab leaders offers a prime opportunity to capture a British-born terrorist alive. As Western Europe recovers from another extremist attack, Eye In The Sky is well aware of its prescience, and it certainly can’t be accused of being flippant.

The film starts slowly, almost unremarkably. Character introductions paint a banal routine. Powell gets out of bed for work, as does Watts. Benson shops awkwardly for a gift for his daughter (Rickman’s trademark droll pronunciations offer much-needed levity throughout). Before all of those, however, we are introduced to little Alia (Aisha Takow). This photogenically adorable young girl puts a too-human face on the mission. The Al-Shabab meeting relocates to a house beside hers in a fundamentalist-controlled suburb, and when it becomes clear that the attendees are ready-to-go suicide bombers, an arrest is no longer an option. With the exception of Barkhad Abdi’s ground agent tailing the would-be bombers, everyone is watching with the perceived shield of distance. That shield can no longer save them from an unforeseen moral dilemma. Thus, the audience is cleverly placed into the character’s shoes; observation does not exclude you from participation.

Over the course of the film, Hood’s direction veers between unremarkable (The first act) and manipulative (The last five minutes, featuring overuse of dramatic slo-mo), but the tight, tense midsection brings out his best. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert can craft political drama (His credits include the Northern Ireland-set Five Minutes of Heaven and Omagh), but it’s not at the expense of classic Hitchcockian suspense. As direction is sought from the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, time ticks on, the bombers continue their preparations, and we’re never allowed to forget the little girl sat outside her house trying to sell bread. Eye In The Sky is a good old-fashioned race against time, and a fascinating military critique to boot. Ultimately, this sees the U.S. and British armies held up by one little girl. At one point, Benson says “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” The line is delivered with Rickman’s unmistakable gravity; besides showing how much we will miss him, it’s also Eye In The Sky in a nutshell. There’s a cost to these exploits, and most of us will be lucky enough not to have to pay for it ourselves.

Review: Son of Saul (Saul fia) (2015)

Director: László Nemes

*****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Son of Saul, László Nemes’ brutal and brilliant Cannes-prizewinning masterpiece, is a film that brings us back to the core problem of putting history on film. When presenting certain events as the background to a fictional story, where does the line lie between honesty and manipulation? Nemes’ film is a fiction, but it is based not only in history, but in one of the darkest examples of inhumanity ever perpetrated. The horrors of the Holocaust have greater import by still being relatively recent. It’s provided rich opportunities for storytelling, but respect must come first from whoever’s giving the orders behind the camera. So, when you consider that filmmakers as diverse as Steven Spielberg and Uwe Boll have made Holocaust films, you can probably guess which one will make the better, more respectful film. Son of Saul is Nemes’ feature debut, but his experience as an assistant to, and protégé of, Béla Tarr should at least reassure us that he can strike the correct tone. It eschews the commercial austerity of Spielberg or Polanski’s efforts, and ends up somewhere closer to the mesmeric horror of German’s Hard To Be A God.

The tone that Son of Saul manages to strike is at once striking and honest. In telling the trials and exploits of Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), Nemes offers a human face on an inhuman period of history. More precisely, it clings to that face, and the humanity behind it. Saul is a prisoner in Auschwitz, forced to be a Sonderkommando, a manual assistant in the gas chambers. Though surrounded by nothing less than crimes against humanity, Nemes keeps Saul front and centre throughout the film. Nowhere is this more necessary than in the opening scene, which sees Saul and his fellow Sonderkommandos helping prisoners gather up their clothes and belongings before they enter the chamber. DoP Mátyás Erdély’s camera sticks rigidly with Saul, so we only ever see the fear and nakedness of the other prisoners in the hazy background, captured in the grit of 35mm film. But that is enough. The atmosphere in Son of Saul is ripe with an all-pervading fear. There is little in the way of colour, save for orange glow of the body-burning pyres. There is little respite, save for the ever-present possibility of sudden death. Son of Saul is trenchantly shellshocking, yet through it all is Röhrig’s Saul, a face frozen in the tender sternness of a need to survive. A poet by trade with limited acting experience, Röhrig wonderfully and necessarily underplays the role, letting the slightest shift in his eyes and the corners of his mouth reflect the revulsion Saul could never express aloud.

Having opened with Saul assisting in the dispatching of a group in the gas chambers, where can a film go after that? Just as the camera focuses on Saul as a humane eye in the middle of a murderous hurricane, so Saul in turn finds a glimpse of humanity to which he clings. A young boy is amongst the dead in the chamber, and is brought out gasping his last. He dies, but in the few breaths Saul sees him take, he claims the boy as his son and vows to himself to give him a proper burial. For the rest of the film, Röhrig undertakes a mission to keep this one hopeful act alive amidst the horrors that Nemes and his crew recreate so vividly. They work wonders on a €1.5 million budget, bringing Auschwitz back from the dead in a triumph of production design and detail, courtesy of László Rajk. It has to be no less than rigorous; Saul is flung back and forth across the camp in his duties for the guards and his ‘son’, the latter requiring him to seek out a rabbi to read the Kaddish over the burial. Focusing on Saul’s determination allows Son of Saul to inject a sliver of hope into a hopeless situation. The crematoria are death factories, yet Saul needs to do right by this boy out of a need for hope and to preserve what remains of his soul. His feelings have been necessarily repressed, but even in the depths of Auschwitz, they survive.

It is the need for emotional resuscitation and rescue that sees Saul get roped into a plot by other Sonderkommandos to smuggle pictures of the atrocities of the camp to the outside, which slowly morphs into a plan for all-out rebellion. The handheld camerawork adds to the tension when Saul and others go on missions of extraction and reconnaissance, but this isn’t Greengrass-aping shaky-cam action. Whether dodging his captors, his fellow plotters or gunfire, the focus remains impressively on Saul throughout, which means that relatively quieter scenes become all the more tense. Saul has to work repeatedly to ensure the boy’s body is not autopsied, which at one point leads to him being discovered by a group of white-coated Nazi doctors. The accompanying soldiers force him to parade around in a mocking Jewish dance, and the camera dances behind Saul all the way. Son of Saul constantly throws the audience into the middle of the insanity. Nemes and Clara Royer’s script pits Saul against the worst of injustices, only for the camera and Röhrig to bring out his best. Nemes commits to his storytelling method, but it’s informed by a need for respect and hope; the central story may be a fiction, but it’s in the midst of a history we can ill afford to forget or misrepresent. It’s a sobering watch, but an unforgettable one.

 

Review: Spotlight (2015)

Director: Tom McCarthy

***

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

 In the good old days of print journalism (and assuming this writer would ever get a job for a magazine or newspaper), a review of an awards hoover like Spotlight would be anticipated, without previews, hints on Twitter or hot takes. Tom McCarthy’s film is a throwback to such a time, but it’s not as far away as we might like to think. Spotlight digs into the archaic facades of two slowly-crumbling monuments, the Catholic Church and investigative print journalism, and discovers greater truths underneath. It goes about its task in a matter-of-fact way, but its story is too fascinating to be impeded by filmmaking flourishes. Or is it?

The Boston Globe’s monumental story on the extent of sexual abuse committed by clergy in the Catholic archdiocese of Boston broke in January 2002. Spotlight opens on a scene long before that, as a bishop and lawyer visit a police precinct in suburban Boston in 1976 to deal with an accusation against a priest. This prologue sets in place what future generations will be up against: a shadowy organisation trying to keep a dirty secret, aided and abetted by having friends in high places. The Church’s effective omerta on child abuse is now common knowledge, and the phenomenon has been covered on film already (The most notable examples are documentaries such as Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa and Amy Berg’s Deliver Us From Evil). Telling this story through the prism of feature filmmaking requires a deft hand. McCarthy’s approach is to shift the focus from the abuse story to the investigation and those undertaking it, and to let that story speak for itself. The direction towards the abuse cases is given by new Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who reads a competitor’s article on an out-of-court settlement and asks about a follow-up. The unsung hero of Spotlight is Schreiber’s calm dignity as Baron, a Jewish blow-in in a Catholic town; the outsider looking in seeks the truth.

We’re quickly introduced to the Globe’s Spotlight investigation team. Led by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), the team of Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) are given a task that sees them digging into an organization that defines their city. An early meeting between Baron and Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) sees the latter lay down his namesake by presenting Baron with a Catholic catechism, declaring that all one needs to know about Boston is contained therein. Moments like this only increase the resolve of both Spotlight and the audience to get to the truth. Law is the closest we get to a central bad guy, as the Church’s power allows the blame to get spread around with a horrifying efficiency. The law firms that mediated for the victims come under scrutiny (enter Billy Crudup with a neat, not-quite-boo-hiss role as leading lawyer Eric MacLeish), and the paper finds a reluctant ally in a lawyer for the victims, Mitch Garabedian. In this role, Stanley Tucci continues his wonderful habit of beefing up side roles with his trademark mix of determination and gravitas.

All of the Spotlight team are self-described lapsed Catholics, so to watch them investigate this institution should prove fascinating on a personal level. However, McCarthy and Josh Singer’s script is more interested in how the story was broken than the ones breaking it. Spouses and personal lives are mentioned but hardly glimpsed, which means the actors have to fill in the blanks. Ruffalo’s energetic boy scout is counterbalanced by McAdams’ compassionate focus, but the supports are the standouts. Keaton and d’Arcy James invest their professional old schoolers with an everyday identifiability, and John Slattery snaffles scenes from everybody as the Globe’s deputy editor Ben Bradlee Jr. His role is the active link to Spotlight’s greatest influence. All The President’s Men may have had Bradlee Sr.as editor and the benefit of Deep Throat’s intelligence, but it also had a greater sense of the historical import of its story (not to mention Gordon Willis’ peerless mood lighting). Spotlight tells its story efficiently, and celebrates the good work behind it. It doesn’t dress up the facts; McCarthy’s direction is largely observant, occasionally finding a frame to use or a moment for a West Wing-style walk-and-talk. Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is defined largely by varying shades of grey, and the piano strikes on Howard Shore’s score hit somewhere between a clock tick and a church bell. It’s all perfectly valid, but a lack of imagination might be to its detriment in the memorability stakes. Spotlight might be too late to its own story to carry influence, but it’s a story worth telling and the film does it justice with respect and a sharp focus, no less and not much more.

Review: Youth (2015)

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

***

This review was orignally published on Scannain.com

Youth? As a title, it reveals little; as a subject, it’s unwieldy. But that’s never been a deterrent to Paolo Sorrentino. The Italian writer/director has prided himself on taking journeys to find no guaranteed answers. A lack of answers doesn’t matter so much when the search for them yields sights and sounds of undeniable delight. Then again, the closer Sorrentino comes to answers, the better the films tend to be. For example, his looks at the workings of Italian politics and society, Il Divo and The Great Beauty, proved that the dangers of politics are no match for the beauty of Italy herself. Once out of Italy (and more crucially, not working in Italian), Sorrentino appears to be on shakier ground. His Irish-American sojourn This Must Be The Place amounted to relatively little beyond whimsy, though even then there were pleasurable nuggets to be found therein. Bolstered by The Great Beauty’s international acclaim, Sorrentino ventures beyond Italy again to a near neighbour. In the Swiss Alps lies inspiration, music and Michael Caine.

More specifically, Michael Caine is lying in a mineral bath in an Alpine resort. Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a once-acclaimed composer and conductor. His glasses and combed-back look hint that Sorrentino might be missing his regular muse Toni Servillo, whilst his sad frown and pallor suggest the luxurious surroundings he’s checked into might not be having the desired effect. Following on from The Great Beauty, Youth sees Sorrentino changing tack. The former film was about Servillo’s semi-retired writer Jep undertaking a search for beauty. Youth is also about older characters, but they’ve given up searching. Ballinger is but one of a number of residents at this resort, and is accompanied by his best pal, film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). Mick’s ironing out a screenplay he’s hoping to direct, though both men would be happy just to be able to pass a few drops of water in the morning without hassle. Caine and Keitel are two actors we’ve watched age onscreen for the best part of five decades, and Youth is well aware of the burden of such histories. Both the title and the film is playfully ironic. Both men, as both characters and actors, have been through their trials and tribulations, we now find them at their most relaxed and chipper, accompanied by Sorrentino’s tasteful exuberance. It might see them in the occasional pratfall here, but it’s a damn sight more dignified an exploration of onscreen aging than Robert De Niro hitting on women young enough to be his granddaughter in Dirty Grandpa. As Ballinger wryly observes at one point “Levity is an irresistible temptation, because levity is also a perversion.”

Youth appears to gives in to this temptation, with a rambling pace and pleasantly breezy tone. The two men spend their days contemplating their projects, both finished and otherwise. While Mick brainstorms on his script, Ballinger is tempted with an offer to conduct a concert for the Queen. While Sorrentino is constantly fascinated by the perils of the artist, these particularly monied examples don’t immediately elicit empathy. The Great Beauty overcame this potential peril with an assured style and pace that never let up. Here, we shuffle along in a riskily episodic way until truths start rising up to the surface. The strifes of fellow resort guests, like Paul Dano’s Johnny Depp-alike actor Jimmy Tree, court whimsy too readily to engage, but then the personal strifes of Mick and Fred arrive to inject some pathos to keep Youth from floating away. Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) joins her father on his break, and takes the opportunity to bring up some home truths. In a stunning monologue told entirely from a massage bed, Weisz steals the entire film away from everyone with a moment of surprising heartbreak. A similar showstopping scene comes from Jane Fonda, cropping up for a late extended cameo as Mick’s muse/straight-talking friend. In between, Sorrentino and his DoP Luca Bigazzi pepper the film with whispers of underplayed emotionality. It’s this ability to tap into emotions so readily that has earned Sorrentino accusations of being a sentimentalist or, even worse, an arch manipulator. Yet, he elicits emotions primarily through stylistic choices, through lighting and music, so it’s hard not to be impressed by this ability. This, plus the game performances, give Youth its heft.

Being a film about a composer, music plays a big part in Youth. Besides an eclectic soundtrack, from Mark Kozelek to David Byrne to Claude Debussy, music is given an inescapable presence here. Kozelek makes an appearance, and Paloma Faith crops up as a love rival to Lena. Youth is not a musical, but it has a surfeit of musicians and artists that give it the sure and fleet-footed feel more akin to a musical. It means that Youth appears more lightweight than some of Sorrentino’s work but, like its Alpine setting, it boasts a pleasant and largely-undemanding ambience, full of good company.

Review: Creed (2015)

Director: Ryan Cogler

****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

The Rocky franchise is no-nonsense entertainment that, at its best, didn’t have to give the audience exactly what they wanted. The character of Rocky Balboa wouldn’t enjoy the status he does if he always won; he’s suffered both professional and personal traumas and emerged intact, so it was no surprise that crowds went to see the champ go for another bout in 2006’s Rocky Balboa. That was sixteen years after Rocky V, and now we’re another decade down the line. Have the audience got the guts for one more bout? Has Rocky? The title may be a giveaway, but Creed sees Rocky stepping out of the ring in favour of new blood. The long-gone Apollo Creed was one of Rocky’s most worthy opponents, so a little vanity must be in play when Stallone’s battered warhorse is tempted back into the game as a trainer by Apollo’s illegitimate son, Adonis.

Sylvester Stallone’s pugilistic alter ego has earned a place in the public consciousness with honest, unshowy filmmaking and a righteousness that only cloyed when the films became cartoonishly political. As a remedy, Creed brings a certain critical bite to go with the punches. As played by Michael B. Jordan (coming to a franchise more worthy of his easygoing charm than that Fantastic Four debacle), Adonis Creed is the fighter we need here and now. Rocky was an all-American hero but, as much as he earned his victories, Adonis is more representative of the underdogs in the United States of today. We meet Adonis as a young inmate of juvenile hall, barely an adolescent and fighting older boys to get by. All the inmates are necessarily tough, and all are African-American. This is but one of many reminders of reality from director Ryan Coogler, whose calling-card debut Fruitvale Station brought home the perils of prejudice. Coogler and his Fruitvale leading man Jordan take that experience and weave it into a narrative that accommodates and delivers it to the masses in a grounded yet unpreachy way. The new underdog is under for more sinister reasons, and few of those boys will be afforded anything like the chance Adonis is about to get.

Adonis is gifted a lifeline: forgiveness. Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) looks past her husband’s transgression to take in his son. It also brings the pressures of a burdensome legacy onto Adonis, but Coogler’s direction, and his and Aaron Covington’s script, ensure the film is nimble enough to never get buried under the weight of its expectations. Despite the quasi-biblical intonations of its title, Creed is first and foremost a part of a recognizable franchise, and Coogler certainly gets to grips with the necessaries. There are montages, heavy lifting, and emotional setbacks (a burgeoning relationship with Tessa Thompson’s Bianca is a touching reprieve from the demands of the ring). It’s all there because Rocky lore is built on this stuff.

Despite the sporty trappings, the key to Creed’s success is a devotion to its main man. An initial bout sees Coogler and DoP Maryse Alberti’s camera remaining glued on Adonis whilst he delivers the blows. It’s a memorable scene, but it shows that Creed’s focus is on the fighter, not the fight. Adonis gets and deserves our attention because he shoulders burdens of all kinds, and all out of pure determination. He didn’t need to represent Apollo, Rocky or any other underdog, but Jordan’s physical and emotional dedication ensures we’re with him anyway. Helping him along the way is Stallone’s old war horse, transferring his energies from his fists to his voicebox to cheer Adonis on with a glimmer of a twinkle still in his eye. A wry laugh comes from a scene in which Rocky, Adonis and Bianca sit down to watch Skyfall on TV. The young’uns fall asleep but, just like James Bond, there’s still life left in Stallone’s yesteryear throwback.

Formula dictates that Adonis trains, builds up, falls and builds up again ahead of a big fight, and that duly happens. While Adonis combats his demons, Rocky fights his own battles. Creed flirts with cheesiness on occasion, but Coogler has too much invested in the film to succumb. It has its punch-the-air moments, but they never feel unearned. Creed is hardwired with Rocky’s lack of cynicism, which even allows it to build in a moment at the famous steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. All of this builds to a fight with champion fighter ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan (played by very real pugilist Tony Bellew). For all there is riding on the fight, both plot-wise and thematically, it only ever comes down to two men in the ring. Creed is the man, and the film, to rise up to the challenge of most any rival.

Review: Knight of Cups (2015)

This review was originally published on Scannain.com.

**

Knight of Cups opens on the awe-inspiring sight of the aurora borealis from space, while we hear narration from the late Sir John Gielgud reading from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress on the soundtrack. Like Bunyan’s opus, Terrence Malick’s latest charts the journey of its hero (named Christian in the book, with Malick’s surrogate played by Christian Bale in a surfeit of serendipity) from the depths of sin to “safe arrival at the desired country.” It certainly captures the ardour of such a journey; it’s fraught with questions, plenty of which go unanswered, and littered with distracting characters at once obstinate, pliable and wanton. Right from the start, it’s a voyage through a pretty landscape, but the climate is distractingly humid, toploaded with hot air.

For the sake of full disclosure, this reviewer saw Knight of Cups legally on a big screen. Yet even before the film ‘leaked’ online (The leaked copy came from a legally downloaded version, originally from iTunes, hence the inverted commas), the chances of seeing Malick’s oh-so-tasteful L.A. commentary in any public arena were gradually slimming. The official synopsis proved to be both vague and overly reductive, already pitching the film at the level of a Zen riddle. A dazzling trailer was counteracted by mixed buzz after the film’s Berlinale bow. Cue nearly a year of flapping limply around the festival circuit, and it’s now getting a staggered Blu-Ray release. After the indifferent passing of To The Wonder, perhaps another grand folly played out in public was too much to bear for ol’ Terry Malick. On this evidence, he only has himself to blame.

Bale plays Rick, who works in Hollywood, though you’d have to read a detailed summary to conclude that he’s a screenwriter. He could be an actor or a director, but the film offers little context beyond the Los Angeles setting. He’s a typically dissatisfied Malick-ian soul, though there’s plenty surrounding him to serve as distractions. The trailer for Knight of Cups, with its choppy cuts, handheld cameras and nightclub footage suggested something that at least moved faster than the sun-dappled To The Wonder. The L.A. of Knight of Cups is no less sunny, which proves a contrast to so many films that are happy to mine its underbelly for a story. The sun illuminates the streets, film sets and aquaria of the city, all of which Rick visits on what is to be a long journey towards some sense of self. The film gets its title from the tarot card of the same name, whose emotional control is dependent on what way the card is turned. Rick is an upside-down card, emotionally drained and in need of calm, away from the distractions of the City of Angels. Considering that we started on with the aurora borealis, this focus seems too narrow for Malick. He reaches for the skies, for the thoughts of Bunyan and the ethereal arctic glows, but Malick’s finished product is too compartmentalized (Perhaps too compromised?) to get there.

Rick’s efforts to upright his card are framed within his meetings with various people, the angels of all shades in a city that Malick seems to think is bereft of them. Initially, Rick parties his way through L.A. as Malick and DoP Emmanuel Lubezki alternate between handheld and Steadicam, black & white and colour. The stylish look of some of these scenes is unusual for Malick, but it does help establish the hedonism of the city before he ramps his methods and message up proper. Encounters with Rick’s mistress (Imogen Poots), estranged wife (Cate Blanchett) and father (Brian Dennehy) come and go, but all with little impact. With the possible exception of Wes Bentley (as Rick’s wayward brother), the cast look lost, as if freshly awoken from sleep. The scenes become more and more Malick-ian, with muted dialogue, gliding camera sweeps back and forth, and important-sounding whispers as voiceover. We’ve been here before; the familiar methodology suggests familiar themes as well, but it never coheres into a satisfying whole. Malick covered the conflict of fathers and sons to much more staggering effect in The Tree of Life, while To The Wonder embodied the joy of love in the simple joy of Olga Kurylenko’s endless twirling through fields. Here, there’s little respite for any character, and even less for an audience.

As much as one could grumble about a similar weightlessness in To The Wonder, the characters were sufficiently engaging to keep it grounded. With less defined characters and less security in what it’s trying to say (beyond broad platitudes about the soullessness of the entertainment industry), Knight of Cups threatens to flit away long before Natalie Portman shows up in the third act to fulfil another ill-defined role. There is an argument to be made that this hollowness is part of Malick’s point. At one stage, a Las Vegas stripper tells Rick, “You can be whoever you wanna be.” Is Rick at such critical mass that he can’t identify himself or anyone else? Well, at one point, Rick wanders into a room filled with fog. Yes, Knight of Cups can be that thunderingly obvious. For a better representation of troubling identity crises, try Anomalisa; that deals with its lead character’s Fregolian dilemma in a way that’s more original and less self-parodic.